VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 3/2/15)—A delegation of eight American Baptists, led by General Secretary Roy Medley and joined by Jim Winkler, President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, embarked on a “Peace and Justice” advocacy and mission trip to Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) from January 27 to February 21, 2015. The delegation also met up with Rev. Joan Friesen and Jay Nordgaard, and a Kachin leader, Maw San Awng (Jum) at Myitkyina, the capital city of the Kachin State, Myanmar. The Kachin State has had a lapse of at least fifty years since American Baptists have visited, due to restrictions imposed by the Burmese government. Today, nearly 98% of the Kachin people are Baptist and trace their Christian heritage to mission work started in the 1850s. View photos from the trip here.
There were three purposes of the visit: 1) To find out the latest status of the people (who are mostly Chin and Kachin) seeking refuge in Malaysia, and the repatriation situation of the Karen people in the refugee camps in Thailand. 2) To ascertain where the cease fire and the peace process is at the moment. 3) To see and hear first-hand concerns about human rights and religious liberty violations and the conditions in which the Kachin Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) live.
During the trip, the delegation met with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in both Malaysia and Thailand. In Malaysia, registration for resettling refugees stopped in 2014. Those who have registered will be resettled to the third country in the next 2-3 years. However, there are many non-UNHCR card holders facing security issues posed by the civil authority. While both the Myanmar and the Thai governments declared there will be no forced repatriation for the refugees from Thailand to return to Myanmar, there are increasing withdrawals of resources and humanitarian aid from the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The shift of support has gradually moved into Myanmar, as the NGOs work to prepare for the return of the refugees. UNHCR maintains a rather optimistic view in achieving the transitional phase once the cease fire and the peace process are in place.
Of all the conflicts and attacks by the Burmese military over the years, it is the “lack of trust” from the regime that changed their course and agreement on the ceasefire. The Armed Ethnic Organization (AEO), which is jointly formed by various ethnic representatives, believes a genuine ceasefire is the crucial step to approach peace negotiation. The AEO has named a National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) to negotiate on their behalf. In addition to the ceasefire talks, there are two related issues that are critical to the peace process: first, proposed amendments to the constitution, and second, the elections scheduled for late October, early November. However, the unpredictable changes can add much anxiety and lack of trust again among all parties.
The delegation then traveled north to Myitkyina, in the Kachin State, to meet with Kachin churches and leaders from the Kachin Baptist Convention. Dr. Jinghpaw Hkalup Ginjaw (Samson),General Secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention, convened several assemblies and led the delegation to the IDP sites where first-hand stories were heard from the displaced people. Since a 17-year ceasefire ended in June of 2011, over 100,000 people were displaced from their homes. The hope of these people is to return home to their villages, but not until a ceasefire and peace process are in place. For now, they will remain in the IDP sites with an indefinite date of return. The delegation also met and consoled the relatives of two volunteer female teachers who were raped and murdered, as well as the family of a 14 year-old teen who was killed, by the soldiers. The Kachin Baptist Convention put out a “one of a kind” welcome and farewell to the delegation along with all the meetings and renewal of spiritual friendship
The last leg of the mission was a six hour drive each way from Rangoon to Naypipaw, the capital city of Myanmar, to meet with Minister U Aung Min, Director of Myanmar Peace Center, President Thein Sein’s representative in the ceasefire talks and peace process. There the delegation lifted up the concerns of a “lack of trust” and the larger issue of the ceasefire and peace process, and urged the Minister to act on those issues as well as to bring justice in the murder case of the teachers.
A highlight was the long awaited meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her parliament office. She explained to the group some of the complexity and the inconsistent strategy from the government. She expressed concern for the upcoming election and how it should be free and fair, and that proper education and communication should be given to the voters. The delegation discussed the minority human rights and religious freedom issues and notified her of the lack of trust of the military government.
The delegation met with W. Patrick Murphy, Charge d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Thailand, and Derek Mitchell, US Ambassador in Rangoon, to lift up our concerns and urge them to closely monitor the ongoing issues. The group noted that unless the Burmese government and military show good will and good faith by guaranteeing the principles of democracy, federalism and equality in the ceasefire agreement, peace and justice will not prevail.
Dr. Medley will lead a smaller delegation on March 5 to visit the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., to brief them on the recent visit. It is the hope of the delegation that until human rights are justly observed and religious liberty is solemnly respected, American Baptist Churches will continue to speak for the people of God.
The delegation members were:
- Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA
- Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches
- Rev. Dr. Saw Ler Htoo, general secretary of the Karen Baptist Churches USA
- Rev. Dr. C. Duh Kam, executive minister of Chin Baptist Churches USA
- Rev. Florence Li, national coordinator, Asian Churches Strategist
- Rev. Dr. Paul Aita & Gail Aita, special assistants to Burma & SE Asia/Japan, International Ministries; visiting professor at Myanmar Institute of Theology
- Rev. Dr. Edmund Z. Bik, honorary pastor of Indiana Chin Baptist Church; retired professor of Myanmar Institute of Theology
- Zo Tung Hmung, executive director of Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dr. Yam Kho Pau, General Secretary of the Myanmar Baptist Convention, also joined the delegation for a time. The Burma Refugees Commission (formerly Burma Refugees Task Force) initiated by ABCUSA in spring of 2007 has been working closely with the Burma diaspora community in the United States and its advocacy needs both here and aboard. For more information about the Burma Refugees Commission, please contact Rev. Florence Li, Florence.Li@abhms.org or call her office 610-768-2468. A photo album from this trip can be viewed here.
American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with over 5,200 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.